Education Opinion

Voting: Reflections on Elections

By Nancy Flanagan — November 04, 2010 4 min read
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Tuesday, I voted for the first time in my new polling place, the charmingly rural Solon Township Hall, where friendly poll workers were excited to meet the new people who live on the hill. I didn’t have to wait in line; in fact, I was the only voter there. I had carefully

researched the candidates in this new part of the state and marked my ballot for a mix of Rs and Ds, most of whom lost. But my votes counted. I am a teacher--but also a citizen, responsive to the democratic process. I’m smart enough to know, however, that while voting still matters, the real decision-making juice is intimately and increasingly tied to money.

I find high-handed critiques regarding the amount of funding and influence teacher unions wield in elections (i.e., footage and disapproving voiceovers of the Clintons grinning and glad-handing at an AFT conference in “Waiting for Superman”) rather disingenuous--especially given the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision, which gave corporations a bonanza of near-anonymous opportunity to shape political action and support candidates. I wish teachers, as a profession, paid far more attention to obvious connections between power, money and policy-making.

Educators often find themselves squeezed between the moral obligation to maintain political neutrality in the classroom--and their own experience-honed beliefs about the kinds of education policies that would get us where we need to go. I also wish teachers were more willing to take an articulate public stance on the politicized issues that shape their work. Even more, I wish that the American electorate was clear on the purpose of public education.

Ask your average American citizen about the purpose of K-12 schooling and you’re likely to get a short answer: preparation for work and life, acquisition of knowledge necessary to “be successful.” Few people will tell the truth (even if they recognize it): acquisition of the essential credits, grades and diploma that will send a child to college or the workplace, and twelve years of hanging out (“socializing,” in the vernacular) with similar peers. Ask a teacher, and you’ll get some eloquence: well-rounded citizens, critical thinking, inspiration and curiosity, the building of cooperative communities, the opening of minds and hearts. The whole child may even make an appearance.

In a richly perceptive--and prescient--analysis of the subtle changes in what Americans want and expect from their schools, David Labaree identified three core goals of education in America over time: democratic equality, social efficiency and social mobility.

Democratic equality was the foundational purpose of the American system of free public education, traceable back to Horace Mann and the Common School, a place of equal opportunity for all children, rich and poor, a training ground for an educated citizenry in a new and ambitious nation. When teachers say they believe schools exist to help all children reach their full human potential they’re thinking of this (very noble) ideal: school as productive melting pot.

The goal of social efficiency-- sorting and educating students to make the maximum contribution to the national economic engine--is woven throughout the language of the education reform movement. Most Americans--rightfully--buy into the idea that schools should prepare students for their appropriate role in a productive nation. In President Obama’s post-election press conference he said:

I think everybody in this country thinks that we've got to make sure our kids are equipped in terms of their education, their science background, their math backgrounds to compete in this new global economy. And that's going to be an area where I think there's potential common ground."

Social mobility posits education as the upward path--a better life earned by hard work and individual merit. Deserved rewards. When little Daisy and Bianca say they want to go to college, to become a veterinarian and a teacher, we are supposed to assume that the right schools provide social mobility. It’s the American dream--any child can realize their personal goals, given persistence and talent.

Unfortunately, it’s mostly fiction--a grand story told to cover the reality: credentials no longer mean a guaranteed professional career and life. In a time when there aren’t many opportunities or even entry-level jobs, children of privilege will fare much better, no matter what school they attend. As long as the public believes that all children are being offered genuine educational quality--in charter academies or reconstituted public schools--we can maintain the illusion that all kids can be “college and career ready” and achieve the good life, if they only try hard.

Labaree points out that democratic equality and social efficiency are public goods--but social mobility is a private good, resulting in:

...the fundamental source of strain at the core of any liberal democratic society--the tension between democratic politics (public rights) and capitalist markets (private rights), between majority control and individual liberty, between political quality and social inequality."

There’s been a lot of talk in the past two days about education being the common ground where Democrats and Republicans can meet and pass legislation--get something done. Thinking about bipartisan policy goals--merit pay, test-score accountability, quasi-public academies open only to a handful of lottery winners, standardizing curriculum, materials and assessments to benefit publishers and vendors-- none of this feels like democratic equality. Will the policies produce a better workforce? Uncertain. But there is ample room for private gain. Labaree:

From the perspective of democratic equality, schools should make republicans; from the perspective of social efficiency, they should make workers; but from the perspective of social mobility, they should make winners."

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.